A Genre-Mixing Problem

When We Were Orphans

A Genre-Mixing Problem

When We Were Orphans

A Genre-Mixing Problem
New books dissected over email.
Oct. 5 2000 12:00 PM

When We Were Orphans

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Dear Jim and Tony,

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Of course I would encourage those already embarked on Orphans to carry on.

Jim, the "perspective from which your criticism proceeds" is a fine one. I should add that I very well know you to be an anti-anglophile. In harsher moments, I'd even call you an anglophobe--that "Outlook" article you wrote trashing the Economist a decade ago being, in fact, a classic of American journalism. (More power to your elbow, as we say over there.)

So let me admit to a mild anglophilia in order to take up a point I left hanging at the end of my last submission. To misquote something Raymond Chandler once said, "The English may not be the world's best writers, but they are incomparably the world's best mediocre writers." That's because Brits think about plot in ways we don't and figure that if they can carry you on to the end of the story, they've done their job.

Ishiguro's that way. He wants what he's written to be taken as a literary novel, but, particularly when he's developing the crime-story line of his plot, he lapses into boilerplate language. Again, we have a genre-mixing problem: John Buchan could get away with such prose, but Kafka and Dostoevsky (another influence we haven't yet remarked on) could not. "It was as though some mysterious force were pulling me back to the doorway" is Bad Crime Writing. So is the scene in which Christopher gets invited to a fancy party, where "I chatted in turn to the ladies sitting on either side of me--both of whom, in their different ways, were quite charming--and the food was pleasantly sumptuous." If you're reading a pot-boiler, you're racing to the payoff and can just zzzzzoop right over such prose. But if you're reading a serious novel, you want the novelist to linger over details that tell you things about mankind. In what "different ways" were those women quite charming? What was the food? (And surely Ishiguro means "scrumptious," not "sumptuous.") The same goes for his description of Shanghai society in 1937, which is engaged in "a pathetic conspiracy of denial." This is a word/concept that was invented circa 1988 and has probably still never been uttered outside of a 12-step meeting.

Such sloppiness is made the more off-putting by its contrast with the nicest bits in the novel, which are Maughamish: surprising, random the way life is, idiosyncratically sweet. (At times--and this is really not an insult--the book reads almost as if Ishiguro were writing with the Merchant Ivory adaptation in the back of his head.) My favorite moment, which puts me in mind of Of Human Bondage, is the one where Christopher, worrying that he's growing un-"English" in Shanghai, asks his Uncle Philip if he can imitate him. ("I wondered if it's all right, sir, if you didn't awfully mind. I wondered if I might copy you sometimes.")

But fuzziness defeats Orphans on what Ishiguro seems to claim as the book's own territory. A deft author can find a way for even an unreliable narrator to share all the facts with his readers. Ford Madox Ford's Good Soldier does. Orphans doesn't. Three examples: 1) At a wedding, the brother of the groom expresses his anger that people have been playing practical jokes on Christopher. What jokes? 2) Is Sarah trying to take Christopher out of Shanghai only because her husband has turned into a dipsomaniacal gambling-addict? Or has she had an upwelling of charity towards Christopher? I suspect the latter, but we don't know, and it would tell us volumes about how well Sarah is able to keep her ambition in check--about the nature of ambition in general--if we did. 3) One gets the impression from Col. Hasegawa, the (alarmingly) easygoing Japanese who drives Christopher to the British consulate after his Walpurgisnacht with Akira, that Christopher's shooting his mouth off has caused Akira to be executed.

I'd kind of like to know.

Best to both a yiz,
Chris

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This week, our Book Clubbers tackle Kazuo Ishiguro's When We Were Orphans, a whodunit in which some of the most crucial developments take place in the detective's own head. Critical reaction so far has been sharply mixed: Does the novel say something profound about memory, or is it just an unsatisfying mystery? Click here to learn more about the critics and here to buy the book.